Social Change
Comments 20

Poverty Porn: Media that intentionally exploits people in poor conditions


Last year I subscribed to Graceway Media for photos for my blog, but my subscription expired a few weeks ago and I didn’t renew it because it was pretty expensive. So I hit the web to shop around for an alternative. Well, I stumbled on an incredibly sweet site call Lightstock.com, a

Christ Centered ROYALTY-FREE IMAGE Website.

STARTING AS LOW AS $5 you can find images that you can use in your next web design, blog post, sermon slide or video project.

I wish they were giving me at least 50 credits for the information I am dropping here. But, who knows, maybe they’ll find my little blog tugged away in this corner of the WWW.

Anyways, I got a little excited about Lightstock and started reading how it works. I went to FAQ and there I discovered two words that sparked a little curiosity. Poverty Porn. Quite frankly, I have never heard the term before. But it made sense when I read the definition on their website:

The term “Poverty Porn” has been used to describe any form of media that exploits people in poor conditions in order to evoke sympathy or support for a given cause. The subjects are usually children or individuals characterized as suffering, malnourished and helpless.

They went on to say that Poverty porn is designed to make the viewer feel good about contributing to a worthy cause, but hear is the catch – in most cases the photo or video and the cause have nothing to do with each other.

Some of the experts on the subject insist that Poverty Porn makes a lot of money. That the very idea of getting and using photos and film comes out of a well-intended and strategic attempt to raise money for poverty alleviation programs. According to Steve Moses, “It is the result of an organization’s desperate attempt to keep itself relevant and attractive to donors, and is considered necessary for sustainability.”

What does Poverty Porn look like? Lina Srivastava describes it best:

  • Rape victims in the Congo used to raise funds in annual reports
  • Images of squatting South Asian women looking up at Western aid workers.
  • The “bad black man” trope reinforcing the “savior complex.”
  • Short films featuring emaciated children lying in the rubble after Haiti’s earthquake.
  • “Darfur for Dummies.”
  • Celebrities, DIY activists, or NGO marketing departments creating photo opportunities with children swarming at their knees, saying the experience has changed their own lives.
  • Initiatives that seek donations of used underwear to send to Africa.
  • “Clitor-aid.”

What kind of damage does Poverty Porn do to individuals? Lina explains that in addition to violating privacy and human rights, poverty porn is damaging to those it is trying to aid because it evokes the idea that the poor are helpless and incapable of helping themselves, thereby cultivating a culture of paternalism and setting the stage for disrespect and disconnect.

A very wise young woman from Africa argues strongly against this type of storytelling. She said, our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. If only a single story about another person, country or culture is being told, we risk a critical misunderstanding of the culture, country or person.

A few notable quotes from her is worth sharing here, because they captures the essence of the problem.

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become.

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

What should churches, ministries and organizations do in order not to fall into the trap of Poverty Porn? According to Lightstock, these churches, ministries and organizations have no intention of exploiting anyone. In fact most churches and christian organizations have never even considered the idea of poverty porn to be a problem. But it is still critical that they be informed and educated about it.

Avoid a Kona 2012 like simplification of history.

Stop the exploitation of innocent children. There is too much child abuse and exploitation in the world and it is shameful for those who claim to want to help these children, to in the process end up using them.

Stop the negative portrayal of communities… Just stop it, it is not helpful.

Those well versed on the subject insist that narratives and design need to reflect that equality and shared humanity, without whitewashing challenges people face.

They also go so far as saying that stories must be co-created with partner communities in order to avoid the trap of imposing one’s ideas or impressions no matter how strongly they feel about it.

Finally, there is a general consensus that building avenues of dialogue, partnership and a willingness to listen to the voices of community leaders, are a few of the best ways to bring about social change.

What is your take? Do you think the end justifies the means? Is the church and other christian organization confronted with an ethical issue? What are some ways we can tell the stories of poor people without whitewashing their challenges and still avoid falling in the trap of poverty porn?

20 Comments

  1. I took a camera with me to Nicaragua the first year and snapped a few pictures. I’m thankful to have them as a reminder of the people I met and how blessed I am to live here.

    When taking pictures, I tried to imagine how I would feel if it were my home being photographed, or even my family. I decided that I wouldn’t like it very much and left my camera home the second year.

    Any time we use manipulation to get what we want we are on dangerous ground.

    If you think about it, what is the difference between manipulation and witchcraft? In both instances we use words (incantations), photos (eye of newt), and people (sent ones) to illicit the thing we want. In addition, we stoop to using the enemy’s tactics – guilt, shame, condemnation to obtain a desired end.

    In neither case (manipulation or witchcraft) are we trusting in the Lord to supply our needs. I don’t think this is such a great idea.

    Just sayin’. 😉

    \o/

    \o/

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  2. The “sound bite” mentality in the news has spilled over into a lot of other areas in the media. I don’t give to any charity simply because of the abuses which are all too prevalent. Yes, I know there are many good charities. I prefer to give anonymously (as much as possible) to people and situations I know.

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  3. This is a difficult one to chew through. On one side here is the danger of demotivating people because they will feel manipulated and lied too. Ergo they become suspicious of any and all charities (grace giving) organisations. I met a gent from UNHCR last week. He was representing those who were stuck in refugee camps. Coming from a refugee camp himself, he proceeded to tell me how hard it is for a lot of professional and well educated people (empowered people) that end up feeling powerless and left behind because they became victims stuck in this seemingly hopeless and frustrating situation. His case would have been difficult to discount as ‘poverty porn’.

    That said, I see the point here and applaud it. We need to insist that what we are being shown and told matches the substance of what is actually happening. True representation of the facts should trump appearances every time. By doing so there would be no need for companies or individuals/ such as some “armchair activists” who incite rent-a–lynch-mobs, to destroy a persons character/life on twitter/facebook. Ersatz propaganda is still propaganda – understood here as noise – manipulation and hype to win support – which is valuing the seeming to be doing, over against actually doing. This is something Christ condemned and he WASN’T just speaking to the ”conservatives” (anachronistic I know – but the claim I heard recently, e.g.: that Christ as more liberal than any liberal! Not only reflects bad exegesis and poor theology, but needs to be said NO to in a big way). Anyways Walt. a fine, thought provoking, well written post mate. Kudos.

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    • #2
      I think there is a better way to tell the stories of poor people that do not objectify them or strip them of their dignity. There is a far more effective way than the ones currently used by many organization.

      One that includes the community in the conversation…
      One that calls for the community to sign off on narratives and images before they are used…
      One that represents well…
      One that does not impose its own ideas…
      One that embraces the community as partner and not pawns…
      One that seeks “to produce images that both inform and transform; images that highlight the power, abilities, and vision of people living in situations of conflict and poverty; images that humanize rather than victimize…”

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    • “We need to educate ourselves—donors, NGOs, and creatives—that our narratives and design need to reflect that equality and shared humanity, without whitewashing challenges people face, and while engaging audiences with good storytelling. We need to co-create stories with our partner communities, and build avenues for us to listen to their voices.” LS

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      • I did not expect that conclusion. In all honesty mate I was expecting something more like ”this is the kind of ethnocentrism and lies we in the West are yada yada yada…’ Point taken 🙂 By the way Great find re: the video .

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        • thank you my brother… you are such a blessing! Thanks for all your wonderful comments – they are smart and very enlightening… you are the “man”

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  4. That’s very interesting, Walter. I’ve never heard that term before. Thanks for the Light source tip, my daughter recently asked me if I knew of a good Christian site for Royalty free pictures.

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  5. Good points Walter about the exploitation of the poor by groups capitalizing on images to wring out out money from donors. Keep fighting the good fight of faith.

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    • Redneck Garage says

      BTW…my like is really a dislike. It really upsets me when people use others to make money. I always check to make sure the money I give goes to the people who need it.

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      • There are many organizations out there doing the right thing. Unfortunately, not too many. This is the first thing I look for in an organization – how much is actually going to the projects for which money is being raised. It has to be all of my dollar or at least 95% of it for me to give.

        Thanks for adding value to this post by your comment.
        Walter

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